Stadium Tech Report: Arizona Cardinals get stadium ready for Super Bowl with Wi-Fi upgrade

University of Phoenix Stadium. Credit all photos: Arizona Cardinals.

University of Phoenix Stadium. Credit all photos: Arizona Cardinals. (click on photos for larger image)

As they get set to host their second Super Bowl this February, the IT team at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., knows now what they didn’t know then: The big game requires a big wireless network. Bigger than you think.

“It’s funny to look back now on that first Super Bowl,” said Mark Feller, vice president of information technology for the Arizona Cardinals, speaking of Roman numeral game XLII, held in the barely 2-year-old facility on Feb. 3, 2008. With a couple Fiesta Bowls and one BCS championship game (2007) under his belt in a facility that opened with Wi-Fi and DAS, Feller said he and his team “thought we had a good handle” on what kind of network was required for a Super Bowl crowd.

The NFL, he said, begged to differ. Those college games might have been big, but the Super Bowl was bigger.

“We had the Fiesta Bowl that year at night, and when the game was over there were people from the NFL there wanting to know when they could set up,” said Feller in a recent phone interview. “This year, we’re much better prepared. We know what the water temperature is this time.”

Rip and replace, with more and better gear

Wi-Fi railing antennas

Wi-Fi railing antennas

For Super Bowl XLIX, scheduled to take place in Glendale on Feb. 1, 2015, Feller and his team have not just tuned up their network — they have done a full rip and replace of the Wi-Fi system, installing new Cisco gear from back end to front, in order to support a wireless game-day demand that is historically second to none. Integrator CDW has led the Wi-Fi effort and Daktronics and ProSound did the installation of new video screens, and neutral host Crown Castle has overseen a revamp of the DAS system, again with more antennas added to bolster coverage. In all, there has been more than $8 million in wireless improvements before this year, Feller said, as well as another $10 million for two new video boards that are each three times larger than what was there before.

“The last three or four years there have been things we knew we needed to improve [before the Super Bowl],” Feller said. After extensive work with the NFL’s technical team — this time well before the Fiesta Bowl — Feller oversaw a “top to bottom” refurbishment that included replacing core Cisco networking gear with newer gear, and new and more Wi-Fi access points that now total somewhere north of the 750 mark, with some more to be added before the big game. The new network, which was in place for the start of the current NFL season, has undergone testing by CDW at each home game, Feller said. CDW also plans to expand the network outside the stadium before the Super Bowl, in part to handle the extra events that take place not just on game day but in the days leading up to the game.

“The plan is to install more [coverage] outside, in the plaza areas,” Feller said.

When it opened in 2006, the $455 million University of Phoenix Stadium was one of the first with full-bowl Wi-Fi, using Cisco gear from the inside out. “Cisco was in here before they called it [their solution] ‘connected stadium’,” Feller said. From core network switches to firewalls to edge switches, this year there is all new Cisco gear in the venue, as well as new 3700 series APs, with panel antennas and antennas in handrails.

“Handrail [antennas] are sometimes a bit of a challenge, because you need to drill through concrete that’s 40 feet up in the air, behind another ceiling,” said Feller, describing one particular design challenge. Another one was mounting antennas on drop rods from the catwalks below the stadium’s retractable roof, to serve the upper-area seating. There are also some new Wi-Fi APs on the front row of the seating bowl, pointing up into the crowd.

“It was a fun project,” Feller said.

Stadium with roof open

Stadium with roof open

All on board for the DAS

The upgrade for the stadium’s DAS, led by Crown Castle, was just finished a few weeks ago, Feller said, and included more coverage outside the stadium as well, with antennas placed on light poles and on the stadium’s shell.

“Crown Castle did a great job of managing the carriers” on what is a 48-sector DAS, Feller said. “It [the upgrade] really required a lot of creative thinking from their engineers.”

Since the stadium was originally designed with wireless in mind, Feller and his team didn’t need to build new head end room for the DAS upgrades. “But I wouldn’t say we have plenty of space left,” he added. “We’ve got a lot of new equipment.”

Though all the major carriers are expected to be on the DAS by the big game, league partner Verizon Wireless should have some special projects up its sleeve for the big game, including another demonstration of its LTE Broadcast technology, which optimizes things like live video over LTE cellular links.

New Cardinals app a preview of Super Bowl version?

The Cardinals also had a new version of the game-day team app for this season, built by stadium-app leader YinzCam. According to Feller the new app supports three different live video feeds, as well as instant replays.

Wi-Fi antenna on railing

Wi-Fi antenna on railing

“It’s really cool to have that ability to watch things like a touchdown pass at the end of the game,” Feller said. And while no details have yet been revealed, in an interview with NFL CIO Michelle McKenna-Doyle earlier this year MSR learned that the league and YinzCam are working on a Super Bowl app with its own new bells and whistles. (Stay tuned for more info on the Super Bowl app.)

In addition to two more regular-season home games in December, the University of Phoenix Stadium will have at least a couple more dry runs to help test the network, during the Dec. 31 Fiesta Bowl and during the NFL’s Pro Bowl, scheduled for Jan. 25. And though the Cardnials lost to the Atlanta Falcons Sunday, at 9-3 they are still tied with the Green Bay Packers for the best record in the NFC, something that has the Phoenix faithful optimistic about the postseason.

“We’re going to get some more test runs, on New Year’s Eve and during the Pro Bowl,” Feller said. “And maybe some home playoff games as well!”

(more photos below)

Wi-Fi antenna in roof rafters

Wi-Fi antenna in roof rafters

More antennas in rafters

More antennas in rafters

Wi-Fin antenna under overhang

Wi-Fi antenna under overhang

Stadium Tech Report: Aruba’s Wi-Fi smarts at the base of Trail Blazers’ new stadium experience

An Aruba AP inside the Moda Center

An Aruba AP inside the Moda Center

Though it’s not been generally known for stadium deployments, being named as the Wi-Fi supplier for the new network at the Portland Trail Blazers’ 20,000-seat Moda Center should give a boost to the arena business for Aruba Networks, the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based network infrastructure supplier.

After learning of Aruba’s win in Portland we caught up via phone with Manav Khurana, vice president for product marketing at Aruba, to learn more about what Aruba is doing differently in the stadium market. Though the company might have had the inside track in Portland (since it had previously sold gear there for an internal Wi-Fi network) Khurana said the Blazers had treated this year’s stadium technology upgrade as a brand-new project. What helps set Aruba apart from other vendors, Khurana said, are some in-house hardware innovations combined with software management techniques that help overcome the obstacles faced by wireless LANs in crowded spaces.

Focused antennas, optimized connections

To help meet the Moda Center’s design criterium of supplying a wireless network “faster than your home,” Aruba brought in the custom antennas it has designed for use in high-density situations. The Aruba access point antennas, Khurana said, can be focused “like a floodlight,” allowing pinpoint coverage of specific seating areas — and also allowing multiple APs to be positioned closely together without fear of interfering with each other.

On the management side, Aruba has an interesting piece of AP firmware it calls ClientMatch, which Khurana said helps combat the problem of mobile devices “locking on” to a specific access point, even if it’s not the best AP the device might see. “ClientMatch actively monitors all APs [in a network] and if there is a better AP available [for a device] it will move the connection in a real-time basis,” Khurana said. Aruba also uses some internal firewall smarts to help prioritize traffic, a necessary evil especially when video streams are part of the equation, as they are with the new Trail Blazers’ team app.

Advertising and infrastructure partners team up in Portland

One aspect that is unique from a business angle in Portland is the branding of the public Wi-Fi network by the local Toyota dealers, a longtime Blazers advertising partner; in fact, the in-stadium SSID reveals the name “Toyota Free Wi-Fi.” Since Wi-Fi users everywhere are accustomed to seeing a splash screen when they sign in to a new network, Khurana said it should get easier to convince advertisers that Wi-Fi connectivity can provide a new kind of billboard, one with the opportunity for one-on-one engagement.

“Three or 4 years ago it used to be tough [to sell Wi-Fi ads],” Khurana said. “Now everyone sees that screen whenever they log in at the airport. It’s a lot easier now to talk about those kinds of [advertising] opportunities.”

The new network infrastructure in Portland — which will eventually include 400 Aruba APs — was deployed by Crown Castle, and a new team app for this NBA season was developed by YinzCam, which has numerous big-league team app deals in all the U.S. major leagues. Thanks to good local coverage by the Oregonian, we should be able to follow the network’s performance over the NBA season (and see if the locals ever get around to calling the stadium by the new sponsor name instead of the Rose Garden handle by which it has been previously known).

Aruba scores with new Wi-Fi deployment for Portland Trail Blazers; Toyota dealers sign on as Wi-Fi sponsor

Wireless networking vendor Aruba Networks scored a big-time NBA deal as the centerpiece technology behind an enhanced Wi-Fi deployment at the Moda Center, home of the Portland Trail Blazers. With more than 400 Wi-Fi access points reportedly deployed, the 20,000-seat arena should have great connectivity for fans as the 2014 NBA season kicks off this week.

While we haven’t yet talked to Aruba folks about the deal (we are working off the numerous versions of the press release we found yesterday) there seems to be a really interesting financial twist, one that could prove a model for others if successful: According to the press releases the local Toyota dealerships in the greater Portland area have signed on as title sponsor for the new Wi-Fi service, which will appear to user devices as “Toyota Free Wi-Fi” in the SSID list. With teams and stadium owner/operators facing the question of how to pay for Wi-Fi infrastructure deployments, title sponsorships could be one way to help offset the millions in sunk costs.

We’ll try to circle back with all the companies involved in the deal, since there are many fingers in this pie: According to the release there is participation from Crown Castle on the deployment side, and popular team-app provider YinzCam scoring yet another team-app deal.